Burns Falls in Love

by Edwin Watts Chubb

When Robert Burns and his brother were working hard on the Mount Oliphant farm, Robert fell in love. This experience, alas, in after years became too frequent an occurrence to occasion much comment, for the ease with which the poet fell in and out of love was the chief fault in a faulty life. But when this episode occurred the boy was still an innocent country lad in his fifteenth year, a lad perhaps somewhat rude and clownish, at least such is an unfounded tradition. Out of the monotony of this life of prosaic toil and drudgery, Burns is lifted by the romance which fortunately he has himself described.

"You know," he says, "our country custom of coupling a man and woman together as partners in the labors of the harvest. In my fifteenth summer my partner was a bewitching creature, a year younger than myself. My scarcity of English denies me the power of doing her justice in that language, but you know the Scottish idiom. She was a bonnie, sweet, sonsie lass. In short, she, altogether unwittingly to herself, initiated me in that delicious passion, which in spite of acid disappointment, gin-house prudence, and book-worm philosophy, I hold to be the first of human joys here below! How she caught the contagion I cannot tell.... Indeed, I did not know myself why I liked so much to loiter behind with her, when returning in the evening from our labors; why the tones of her voice made my heartstrings thrill like an Æolian harp; and especially why my pulse beat such a furious ratan when I looked and fingered over her little hand, to pick out the cruel nettle-stings and thistles. Among her love-inspiring qualities, she sung sweetly; and it was her favorite reel to which I attempted giving an embodied vehicle in rhyme. I was not so presumptuous as to imagine that I could make verses like printed ones, composed by men who read Greek and Latin; but my girl sung a song which was said to be composed by a country laird's son, on one of his father's maids, with whom he was in love; and I saw no reason why I might not rhyme as well as he; for, excepting that he could shear sheep and cast peats, his father living in the moorlands, he had no more scholar-craft than myself. Thus with me began love and poetry."

Robert Burns

From the portrait by Nasmyth

The song that was due to this boyish passion is called "Handsome Nell," and is said to be the first he wrote. It can be found in any complete edition of the poet's work. In after years he himself calls it puerile and silly, but, while lacking the exquisite perfection of Burns' later lyrics, it is far superior to the usual first attempts of poets. The last two stanzas run thus:

A gaudy dress and gentle air
May slightly touch the heart;
But it's Innocence and Modesty
That polishes the dart.
'Tis this in Nelly pleases me,
 'Tis this enchants my soul!
For absolutely in my breast
She reigns without control.

"I composed it," says Burns, "in a wild enthusiasm of passion, and to this hour I never recollect it but my heart melts, my blood sallies at the remembrance."

Poor Burns! How much happier he would have been had all his loves been as innocent as this first experience! In one of Tennyson's most vigorous passages in the Idylls we read,

... for indeed I knew
Of no more subtle master under heaven
Than is the maiden passion for a maid,
Not only to keep down the base in man,
But teach high thoughts, and amiable words
And courtliness, and the desire of fame,
And love of truth, and all that makes a man.

Perhaps, if Burns in a later love affair had been successful in his suit, his life and reputation would not have suffered as they have, for the most culpable trait in the character of the famous Scotch poet is the ease with which he abandoned one lover for another. He was forever falling in love, and there is some evidence to the effect that he loved two or three at the same time. There is only too much truth in Burns' own lines,

Where'er I gaed, where'er I rade,
A mistress still I had aye.

But perhaps all this would have been different had Ellison Begbie, the daughter of a small farmer, smiled favorably upon the advances of the young farmer from Lochlea. She is said to have been a young woman of great charm and liveliness of mind, though not a beauty. In after years Burns always spoke of her with the greatest of respect and as the one woman, of the many upon whom he had lavished his fickle affection, who most likely would have made a pleasant partner for life.

His love affair with this young lady took place near the close of his twenty-second year. Her refusal seems to have had a malign influence upon the career of our poet. Up to this time his love affairs, although numerous, were innocent. As his brother Gilbert says, they were "governed by the strictest rules of virtue and modesty." But henceforth there is a change in the character of Burns. Shortly after the fair Ellison had turned a deaf ear to the letters and love-songs of the importunate wooer, Robert and his brother Gilbert went to Irvine, hoping that in this flax-dressing center they could increase their income by dressing the flax raised on their own farm. Here Burns, always very susceptible to new influences,—he would not be the poet he is had he not been keenly alive and susceptible,—fell under the malignant charm of a wild sailor-lad whose habits were loose and irregular. "He was," says Burns, "the only man I ever knew who was a greater fool than myself, where woman was the presiding star; but he spoke of lawless love with levity, which hitherto I had regarded with horror. Here his friendship did me a mischief."



Burns was in trouble; he had failed as a farmer, and as a young man he had wounded the sensibilities of his family. It seemed best to try a new life in a new land, so he promised a Mr. Douglas to go to Jamaica and become a bookkeeper on his estate there. But where should he get the money to pay his passage? There were the poems lying in his table-drawer—might they not be published and money be raised by the sale? His friends encouraged him to publish them, and what is more to the point, they subscribed in advance for a number of the copies. John Wilson of Kilmarnock was to do the printing. During May, June, and July of 1786 the printer was doing his work. At the end of July the volume appeared, and soon the fame of the Ayrshire Plowman was established. Let us hear Burns himself give his account of the venture:

"I gave up my part of the farm to my brother, and made what little preparation was in my power for Jamaica. But, before leaving my native country forever, I resolved to publish my poems. I weighed my productions as impartially as was in my power; I thought they had merit; and it was a delicious idea that I should be called a clever fellow, even though it should never reach my ears—a poor negro-driver, or perhaps a victim to that inhospitable clime, and gone to the world of spirits! I can truly say that pauvre inconnu as I then was, I had pretty nearly as high an idea of my works as I have at this moment, when the public has decided in their favor....

"I threw off about six hundred copies, of which I got subscriptions for about three hundred and fifty. My vanity was highly gratified by the reception I met with from the public; and besides, I pocketed, all expenses deducted, nearly twenty pounds. This sum came very seasonably, as I was thinking of indenting myself, for want of money, to procure a passage. As soon as I was master of nine guineas, the price of wafting me to the torrid zone, I took a steerage passage in the first ship that was to sail from the Clyde, for

'Hungry ruin had me in the wind.'

"I had been for some days skulking from covert to covert, under all the terrors of a jail, as some ill-advised people had uncoupled the merciless pack of the law at my heels. I had taken the last farewell of my friends; my chest was on the way to Greenock; I had composed the last song I should ever measure in Caledonia, 'The gloomy night is gathering fast,' when a letter from Dr. Blackwood to a friend of mine overthrew all my schemes, by opening up new prospects to my poetic ambition."

The success of the first edition of his poems was so pronounced that Burns soon gave up the idea of going away to Jamaica. Ayrshire was flattered to discover that within its borders lived a genuine poet. Robert Heron, a young literary man living in that neighborhood, gives us an account of the reception of the little book of poems: "Old and young, high and low, grave and gay, learned or ignorant, were alike delighted, agitated, transported. I was at that time resident in Galloway, contiguous to Ayrshire, and I can well remember how even plowboys and maidservants would have gladly bestowed the wages they earned most hardly, and which they wanted to purchase necessary clothing, if they might procure the works of Burns."

When Burns wished a second edition of his poems, he had a very poor offer from his printer. So he went to Edinburgh to see whether he could not make a more advantageous bargain in the Scottish capital. He reached that famous city on the 28th of November, 1786. Here he was feted and banqueted, admired and criticised. In April, 1787, the second edition appeared. The volume was a handsome octavo. The Scottish public had subscribed very liberally, and eventually Burns received 500 pounds, but Creech, his publisher, was so slow in making payments that Burns had to wait a long time before he received his due.

Walter Scott was among the many who met Burns during his stay in Edinburgh. Scott was but a boy of fifteen, but he never forgot the glance of approval bestowed upon him by the poet. We are especially fortunate in having Scott's own account of the incident: "As for Burns, I may truly say, 'Virgilium vidi tantum.' I was a lad of fifteen when he came to Edinburgh. I saw him one day at the late venerable Professor Adam Fergusson's. Of course we youngsters sat silent, looked, and listened. The only thing I remember which was remarkable in Burns' manner, was the effect produced upon him by a print of Bunbury's, representing a soldier lying dead on the snow, his dog sitting in misery on one side—on the other his widow, with her child in her arms. These lines were written beneath:

Cold on Canadian hills, or Minden's plain,
Perhaps that parent wept her soldier slain—
Bent o'er the babe, her eye dissolved in dew,
The big drops mingling with the milk he drew,
Gave the sad presage of his future years,
The child of misery baptized in tears.

"Burns seemed much affected by the print: he actually shed tears. He asked whose the lines were, and it chanced that nobody but myself remembered that they occur in a half-forgotten poem of Langhorne's, called by the unpromising title of The Justice of Peace. I whispered my information to a friend present, who mentioned it to Burns, who rewarded me with a look and a word, which though of mere civility, I then received with very great pleasure. His person was strong and robust; his manner rustic, not clownish; a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity. His countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits. I would have taken the poet, had I not known who he was, for a very sagacious country farmer of the old Scotch school—the douce gudeman who held his own plow. There was a strong expression of sense and shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, which glowed (I say literally, glowed) when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time."